By Frank Rinaldi
Last month, the Academy released its short list of potential nominees for this year’s Best Feature Length Documentary award. Included was filmmakers’ Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s buzz-garnering “The Boys of Baraka,” which chronicles the lives of four black boys coming of age in the projects of Baltimore, one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities. The kids are given a chance to gain a better education via the Baraka School for Boys, located in Kenya and dedicated to providing guidance and hope for inner city males who might not otherwise have a chance to experience life outside the environment they were born into.
“Boys” brings to mind last year’s Oscar-winner “Born Into Brothels,” filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s visceral depiction of Indian youths growing up in Sonagchi, one of Calcutta’s most infamous red light districts, , where Briski teaches an introductory and informal photography class to a handful of residential pre-teens.
Examined together, there are plenty of obvious parallels between the two pictures, but after viewing each in succession, I noticed a fundamental difference between them, a discovery that had me asking a lot of questions, particularly: What good do these “social awareness” films really do? Are the subjects merely being exploited by publicity-savvy artists, or are the filmmakers fulfilling their unspoken obligation to help their subjects by drawing attention to these widely ignored realities?
One of the cardinal rules of the documentary is to capture and communicate some sort of truth. “Born Into Brothels” is indeed harrowing in its depiction of India’s lower castes, illegal businesses and abject poverty. As the film progresses, we also see Briski’s determined attempts to rescue her students by begging parents and patiently navigating Kafkaesque bureaucracy in order to enroll her students in various private schools,though in the end, most of the students were either removed by their parents, or decided to remove themselves. Briski did what she could. She didn’t abandon those she inspired, leaving them with a head full of unachievable goals and a heart full of maddening desire, but took action and opposed the traditional role of the documentarian as passive observer.
So does “The Boys of Baraka” follow suit in its articulation of truth? In a fucked up way, it does convey the harsh mechanics of a repressed society, how they affect the individuals living within and how, when placed into a supportive environment, those individuals can flourish But the film also smacks of manipulation and exploitation I left feeling angry and guilty, but not for the “right” reasons, or rather, not for the reasons one would expect a naive upper-middle class white boy to feel after watching a movie about children growing to adulthood amidst terrifying and almost hopeless circumstances. As if the lives of Montrey, Devon, Richard and Romesh weren’t, aren’t difficult enough, a pair of artists gets the gumption to gallantly document their story of overwhelming hardship and sell it to a Sunday-afternoon arthouse crowd looking to feel cheap-sad and be cheap-moved for an hour and a half as they observe the very real and very foreign plight of these young men. And I have to ask, at what cost is this happening and for what benefit? I did some research on the matter and, as far as I can tell, the film will in no way directly aid in the alleviation of the societal maladies it so “responsibly” identifies. At the end of the day, “The Boys of Baraka” simply comes off as an exploitative take-it-to-the-streets effort that is likely to remedy very little.
Yes, the conveyance of truth is a quintessential goal of the documentary, but when a problem is recognized, sitting on your ass and acknowledging its existence simply isn’t enough. Therein lies the most profound rift separating two of the past years’ most widely regarded documentaries. Both recognize and explore the realities of a social malady, but only one attempts to do anything about, while the other falls short
After all, according to the terse tried and true G.I. Joe maxim, “Knowing is half the battle.”